Six millennials buy the kind of downtown house their peers dream about — well a home really — one that radiates charm and warmth with generous high-ceilinged space and enough bedrooms and bathrooms for each of the six homeowners, plus room for guests.
When it comes to housing in Toronto, money is always going to be part of the conversation. But for these homeowners, the financial benefits of splitting a mortgage and other living expenses come second to the benefits of sharing their lives — with one another and with a wider community.
They call their west-end house Clarens Commons. Each of the six own between 2 and 37 per cent of the two-and-a-half-storey detached house that they purchased last year for $1.3 million. They won’t discuss who owns what shares because, for decision-making purposes, all the owners are considered equal.
There are seven bedrooms and three bathrooms, including a guest room and bath in the renovated basement. The front of the house offers a wide front porch. There’s a back yard and two-car garage backing on a laneway. Inside the front door a wide entry, open living and dining room and kitchen welcome guests with bright colours, a mix of interesting art and a showstopper back splash of butter yellow and wedgewood blue tile.
This is an adult home, not a college dorm or a hippy commune. For the homeowners, it is just a different way of adulting — an alternative that is seldom considered in a society where the convention is to live alone or as a couple. It’s a human enhancement to the technology-based social connections that are increasingly the norm.
“I work in mental health, I spent time volunteering on a crisis line. I have just seen time and time again for myself and others that we’re more isolated than we should be or want to be,” says Valery Navarrete, 39, who, like most of the house mates, has lived in groups and alone.
The prevailing ethos of the house is an open door — one that accepts a steady stream of friends, acquaintances, neighbours and visitors — a series of communities that orbit the residents and occasionally collide at weekly movie nights, parties, DIY days devoted to home improvement and the occasional special event like a clothing swap or panel discussion.
For the owners, Clarens Commons is about having the space to accommodate their assorted circles. It’s spiritual but not religious — living with the intention of being active participants in the lives of their housemates and others who flow through the house.
“We have this question of how do you live well and I think that’s different for everybody,” Navarrete says. “A lot of it is going to be very individual — I don’t want a TV in my house versus I want a TV in every room, or I want low-tech versus I want all the tech — it’s how do you then navigate when you hit difference? And that’s the relationship and that’s the communication and belief in the value of community and commitment to making that a valuable experience to everybody.”
Karim Rizkallah, 36, is the common denominator among the six homeowners, aged 28 to 39. He and friend Navarrete made the leap. They put in an offer in December 2017 and then put out the word they were looking for partners. Mandy Sherman, who works in communications and fundraising for a non-governmental aid organization, and Alexandra Stokes, who works in product development for a consulting firm, were both members of Rizkallah’s previous house, a rental. Sabrina Bowman, who works with a non-partisan, non-profit organization promoting environmental leadership in politics, had worked on various projects with Rizkallah. The sixth Clarens owner declined to participate in this report.
They closed on the house in March and waited until August to move in following extensive renovations. The home was rewired, two main-floor walls were knocked down to create the space and flow they wanted. A kitchen was ripped out to make way for a bathroom.
Renovations can rupture a couple or a family. But watching their friends and families contribute time and skills has made for happy memories, say the housemates.
Sherman recalls a dusty construction site that came alive with a work crew of friends.
“It filled my heart up — to switch that point of stress and infuse that with energy,” she said.
They live according to two documents. There is a five-year legal co-ownership agreement that spells out situations that could end up in court — things like what happens if someone wants to leave the house. Appended to that is a non-legal, collaboratively written “house code” that guides the culture of their home — how they communicate in various scenarios such as long-term guests, shared purchases and hosting events.
It is a household of socially conscious individuals. But that isn’t the foundation of their arrangement, Navarrete says.
“I don’t think what makes us work is that I have a lot of ethics around fair trade food. I think it’s emotional awareness. We value community and how do we make community valuable to us, to each other,” she says.
“Do you hug?” That’s Rizkallah’s typical greeting. The self-described extrovert is stretching his culinary skills. It is his turn to cook at the weekly house dinner, this home’s version of family night.
His housemates describe Rizkallah as deeply generous and exceedingly busy. In addition to his tech job and a vast network of people and projects, he is the one who documents the house, recording the activities and expenses on a formidable series of spread sheets. Day-to-day expenses such as groceries and utilities are divided equally among the owners.
The story of Clarens Commons is told over the broccoli soup that comes with optional cheese and walnuts. The cook du jour calls the main course a deconstructed stir-fry with veg, rice and tofu.
Group menus are often vegan because of assorted dietary preferences and restrictions. But the homeowners agree they eat more vegetables as a group than they would if they dined alone, and on about $250 a month each for groceries.
Likewise, they credit the spotless condition of the house to a chore roster that allows people to do the jobs they prefer. Someone cleans the bathrooms, someone else is in charge of garbage and recycling, another person cleans the floors.
Bowman’s chapter in Clarens’ lore is known as the “cockroach of fate.” She liked the idea of co-housing but never thought she would actually do it.
When Rizkallah asked if she was interested in joining the house, Bowman, 36, had been single for a long time, her friends were getting married and having babies.
“I felt like I didn’t have my person — the person you can call when something goes wrong or build something with,” she said.
What she did have was a great apartment above a restaurant. In two years, Bowman had only seen a single cockroach.
But the second time Rizkallah called to ask about the house, she was scrambling to leave on a ski trip. Bowman looked up and that’s when she saw it — another cockroach. She took it as a sign. As soon as she arrived at the ski lodge she called and said she was in.
“The thing I was talking about before — having your person — that’s what I get from the house in a lot of ways,” she says. “We are there for each other when something goes awry in a way you can’t do with your close friends sometimes.”
Often Bowman comes home from work and somebody’s made dinner. One of her fondest memories since the group moved in was when she and Sherman were both home with colds. Sipping tea and reading on the facing couches in the living room provided some mutual comfort, she said.
For Sherman, 34, who enjoyed the co-operative atmosphere of the previous rental house, the move to co-ownership was “a natural progression of, what for me, was working already.”
“It added so much richness to my life,” she says.
For an introvert like Sherman, there can be challenges. As much as she loves the flow of traffic through their kitchen, sometimes she just needs to retire to her upstairs room until she’s ready to greet the new voice in the kitchen.
Like everyone at Clarens, she stresses “this doesn’t work unless you put work in it.”
There are still relatively few lenders that will accommodate six people on a mortgage and, to be on title for the property, you have to be on the mortgage, says Lesley Tenaglia, a mortgage agent who specializes in joint arrangements.
The mortgage industry generally allows a maximum of four people and some loan products won’t allow more than two, she said.
“If you want to co-buy with a group you have to be willing to be financially naked. You have to be very honest about your finances, your income, if you have bad credit history. If you try to hide an issue it can cause a roadblock,” Tenaglia says.
After some searching, the Clarens owners took out their mortgage from Duca credit union.
The owners forged their legal co-ownership agreement with the help of friend and lawyer Craig Garbe. He says the challenge of the contract was to anticipate virtually every potential scenario — from death to marriage to bankruptcy — that could occur within the five-year term of the agreement.
“It’s just as complicated as any corporate or commercial joint venture deal. You’re thinking about all the same things. You’re trying to construct exit mechanisms and worrying about default of one party and not another, decision-making rights — all the concepts are there,” he said.
Much of the contract covers exit strategies. If one owner notifies the others they want out, the contract provides for a window in which the property’s value is determined. That is multiplied by the percentage of the exiting owner’s share. The other owners can either buy that person’s share or invite a third party to buy in.
Any newcomers must be approved by all the remaining co-owners.
If they don’t want to buy out the departing owner immediately and they have no third party to buy in, the remaining owners can defer paying the departing person until a later date. That date can extend as long as the term of the five-year contract — at that point they would reassess and, if it’s working for them, sign a new agreement.
“That protects the co-owners from someone with a big percentage interest walking away but no one having the money to pay them right at that time and it pushes the payment out,” Garbe says. The exiting owner ceases contributing to the operating costs of the house but might have to wait for their capital.
The most obvious default would be an owner’s failure to pay due to financial difficulty.
But marriage also constitutes defaulting on the agreement, Garbe says. That is because a marriage automatically makes their share of the house part of their net family property, meaning their spouse could be entitled to it and that may not be the intention of the other owners.
An owner can expand their share of the house if the others agree but it would be up to the buyer to pay the land transfer tax on that share. If the owners decided to rent out a portion of the property, the proceeds would go into the household operating funds with surplus going to capital.
Garbe says the test of the agreement would be how it stands up in the event of a lawsuit but he hopes that never happens.
It’s movie night at Clarens Commons. The housemates are trickling in from work, grabbing leftovers from the fridge, trying to quiet the barking of visiting pooch Eden, the latest in a series of pet guests at the house.
The doorbell starts ringing just after 7 p.m. yielding a steady stream of visitors. There’s a little buzz of conversation and anticipation as guests busy themselves in the kitchen, gathering their potluck snacks and drinks.
Downstairs a dozen people are settled on couches and folding chairs for a screening of the Oscar-winning film Roma.
Popcorn and snacks are passed through the audience. When the lights go on Rizkallah leads a brief discussion of the film and everyone is invited to rate the movie — something he records for comparison purposes.
“I prefer doing almost anything with other people. I just enjoy the shared experience,” Rizkallah says, adding that having the space to do that is part of the joy of co-ownership.
But money was “100 per cent” secondary in his decision to buy rather than continuing to rent, recognizing that he’s speaking as someone who has “the privilege” of being financially stable, he says.
The constant fear of eviction, however, in the city’s incredibly tight rental market — that matters.
“To not have to deal with the slings and arrows of the housing market, in a nutshell, is nice,” he says.
But to make co-housing work, you have to see conflict as a growth opportunity, Rizkallah says.
Navarrete stresses there are mechanisms, including monthly house meetings, for resolving issues before they become a source of conflict — talking about something when it is a “one” on the scale of irritation instead of waiting for it to become a “four.”
Stokes, 28, thinks people crave community. She says people in small towns like Port Elgin, where her partner lives, seem to know each other well.
“In the city there’s more business and there is a lot of focus on work and projects. You see a lot of workplaces becoming the new centre of community — creating environments with a greater purpose,” says Stokes, who loves the events that bring a broader community into Clarens Commons.
“When we talk about community we think about the people we hang out with all the time,” she says. “But I like to think of it as wider, concentric circles.”
Although they aren’t evangelical, the six co-owners want to encourage others to consider shared housing.
“It’s almost a little bit crazy we don’t do it more,” Sherman says.
For Navarette, the difference co-ownership has made in her life can be boiled down to Sunday dinner. When she lived alone, she could usually find someone to share that meal but it took work, texting one friend, waiting for a response and moving on to someone else if the first person couldn’t make it. It took effort. She says her restructured life means there are people around on Sunday when she doesn’t feel like going out.
“They’re there to eat that meal with me. It’s just kind of built in,” she says.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski